4 Bargain Beach Vacations

Didn't get to take your summer trip? Here are our picks for the most affordable off-season seaside destinations.
By Monica Michael Willis




Don’t put the kibosh on weekend trips just because school’s back in session. Now is the perfect time to pack up the kids and take advantage of September’s wallet-friendly rates and crowd-free beaches at some of the country’s sweetest beach destinations.

Cape May, New Jersey

This charming beach community at the southern tip of New Jersey attracts Mid-Atlantic families in droves, thanks to its pedestrian-only cobblestone shopping district, Victorian-lined side streets, and easy access to one of the Garden State’s loveliest stretches of shoreline. Capemay.com

Where to stay
The Star, a stylish, modern motel with 10 apartment-like units, nine guest rooms, and two carriage houses, each with two bedrooms, separate living area with sleeper sofa, kitchenette, flat-screen TV, and small terrace overlooking the Atlantic. Best of all, families can avail themselves of the full-service spa, outdoor pool, restaurants, and free beachside concierge service at The Star’s sister property, Congress Hall, a landmark 1816 oceanfront hotel, located just across the street. Room rates for a family of four start at $179, down from $439 in August. Caperesorts.com

What to do
Hit the beach, for starters. (Admission fees are waived post Labor Day!) If you’re feeling energetic, rent bikes at Congress Hall and tour the historic district or two-mile promenade that runs parallel to the beach (go early: It’s pedestrian-only after 10 a.m.). Got a paranormal investigator in your crew? Take the Ghosts of Cape May Trolley Tour and let psychic Craig McManus explain why this town ranks among the most haunted in America. If retail therapy appeals, make your way to the Washington Street Mall, home to independently owned toy and bookshops, as well as ice cream parlors and souvenir stores. When hunger strikes, try Uncle Bill’s Pancake House for fluffy stacks or George’s Place, a family-oriented Greek eatery a few blocks from the hotel.

Insider tip
Driving from the south? Avoid residual Jersey Shore traffic (and take in bay views) on the 85-minute ferry trip from Lewes, DE. Reservations highly recommended: 800-64-FERRY

Santa Catalina Island, California

Taking the hour-long ferry trip from Long Beach (Catalinaexpress.com) to this picturesque, roughly 20-mile-long island, located 22 miles off the coast of southern California, is half the fun, especially if the kids spot dolphins or sea lions along the way. Plus Avalon, the island’s only commercial area, with its dramatic harbor, serpentine seawall, and Art Deco casino, is easy to navigate on foot, even for little ones. Catalinachamber.com

Where to stay
Just one and a half miles from the ferry landing, the Hermit Gulch Campground can be accessed by foot, taxi, or city trolley. For $50 per night (plus $21 per adult and $12 per child), parties of up to six receive a tented cabin, a propane lantern, and a stove. Sleeping bags and camping gear can be rented on site. Visitcatalinaisland.com/camping-and-boating 
Prefer a soft mattress? Check out El Terado Terrace, where suite rates are around $259 in August but drop to $199 in September. Elterado.com

What to do
Take a dip in the Pacific Ocean, then play Skee-Ball at the Metropole Market Place arcade. Or join a guide from the Catalina Island Conservancy and tour the island’s backcountry. Later, lunch at Bluewater Grill, which offers a healthier-than-average kids’ menu (think: grilled-chicken bento boxes). For dessert, hit up Lloyd’s of Avalon Confectionery for saltwater taffy.

Insider Tip
Don’t miss the USS Nautilus tour; the semisubmersible boat has a special torpedo so kids can feed fish from inside the vessel!

Old Orchard Beach, Maine

Less than a two-hour drive from Boston, this family-friendly resort town delights kids with its old-timey seaside amusement park and seven miles of white-sand beaches perfect for swimming, bodysurfing, and sandcastle building. Oldorchardbeachmaine.com

Where to stay
Reserve one of the eight clapboard units at White Lamb Cottages, less than a minute’s walk from the beach. The cottages sleep up to six and include fully equipped kitchenettes, free Wi-Fi, and a daily breakfast (coffee, baked goods, newspaper) delivered to your door. In August, rates start at $259, but come September, you can snag a spot from $139 a night. Whitelambcottages.com

What to do
When the kids have had their fill of sea and sand, head to the sprawling oceanfront arcade at Palace Playland, or spend the afternoon at Funtown Splashtown USA, an amusement and water park in nearby Saco. For sweet treats (homemade fudge!), pop into Dickinson’s before strolling the 500-foot wooden pier just off downtown’s Grand Avenue. Later, dine on the waterfront at Bayley’s Lobster Pound (in nearby Scarborough), a casual restaurant that’s been serving some of Maine’s finest lobster since 1915.

Insider Tip
Sample cinnamon buns baked fresh every a.m. at Ocean Park Sub & Grocery on Seaside Avenue.

Sanibel, Florida

This subtropical barrier island on the Sunshine State’s Gulf Coast gives young nature lovers the chance to explore shell-strewn beaches and take in wildlife, from dolphins and manatees to great blue herons and roseate spoonbills. Sanibel-captiva.org

Where to stay
Sanibel’s Seaside Inn, a comfy, Old Florida-style beachfront hotel that boasts a crystal-clear pool and retro shuffleboard courts. The inn’s cottages (which include fully equipped kitchens) can comfortably fit a family of four. Nab one with a Gulf view for $186 per night in mid-September, down from $309 before the start of school. Theinnsofsanibel.com/seasideinn

What to do
Sign out the hotel’s free bicycles and pedal the 23 miles of paved paths on the island; comb the beach for shells; or visit the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a gorgeous sanctuary rated among the best in the country for birdwatching (pack bug spray, sunscreen, and binoculars). Later, check out the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s Nature Center, which offers trails, a butterfly house, child-centric beach walks, and boat tours. When you’ve worked up an appetite: Order the granola-banana hot cakes at Lighthouse Cafe or try a slice of Key lime pie at Gramma Dot’s.

Insider Tip
Flying into Fort Myers? Take the kids on a guided tour of Seminole Lodge and The Mangoes, the neighboring winter estates of best buds Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.


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Photo: Sam Robinson/AUGUST

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